July 15th, 2007 | 4 MIN READ

Optimizing Site Search for Non-Product Information

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

Last post I discussed the need for optimizing your internal search engine to work for non-product searches like shipping, returns and other customer service queries. As promised, today I’m digging into how to make this happen. Because site search optimization will depend on what type of content management you are using, what type of search engine you are using and so on, this is not a how-to guide for programming, more of a "what info you need to gather for your web developer to make it happen."

Ideally you and your web developer took optimal site search engine configuration into consideration right from the beginning of development, but that is usually not the case. The majority of web development firms do not have information architecture specialists on board to anticipate all the search requirements you may not be aware of yourself.

If you find your ecommerce website fails the non-product information search test, not to worry, it’s never too late to optimize, although it may involve a major development overhaul. It could be a matter of manually entering meta keywords to your content pages (providing they will be read by your internal search robots), creating data files of keywords or building customized dictionaries/thesauri to match queries that do not appear in the documents.

There are tools that can help you optimize your search functionality called “query builders”:

Spell checkers – auto-correct misspellings and treat them as correct terms

Phonetic tools – expand queries to include variations of spellings, for example a search for “McLean” will also deliver results with “MacLean”

Stemming tools – return results including variations of a term, for example “return,” “returning,” “returned” “returns”

Controlled vocabularies – deliver results including acceptable synonyms programmed into the database, example: a search for “cellphone plans” could deliver documents with “mobile phone plan”

Natural language processing – deliver relevant documents for queries like “how do I return my stereo” or “I want an external hard drive that works with a Macintosh”

The integration of these tools needs to be discussed with your in-house or outsourced web development team, as implementing changes depends on what kind of content management system you are using, existing database structure and so on (what is desired may not always be possible). Also, your goals may be conflicting, as search engine algorithms either lean towards delivering results based on precision (user is shown a few results that match the search term more exactly) or recall (user is shown more results including synonyms and stemmings).

Other options include integrating a more sophisticated software search product like EasyAsk (J.Jill and BassPro) or Netrics (OfficeFurniture.com and BMG Music) that have advanced search functionality out of the box.

What your job as an ecommerce marketer or administrator / owner, is to determine what you want your site to do, and to communicate your needs to your developer. First you’ll want to account for which documents you want to be added to your search index. Typical customer service documents:

Shipping Information
Return Policy
Privacy Policy
Order Status
Order Tracking
Store Locator
Customer Service
Payment Methods
Canceling Orders
International Orders / Shipping

    Next you’ll want to gather all the related terms, synonyms and possible misspellings for keywords that could be considered relevant to each document. You can keep track of them by creating a spreadsheet with one worksheet per document. You can do this by:

    • 1. Brainstorming keywords
      2. Visit competitors sites and reading their text
      3. Checking your internal site search logs (through your CMS or webmaster)
      4. Using a thesaurus
      5. Using keyword research tools like Google’s free External Keyword Tool, Keyword Discovery or Similarkeys.com
      6. Usability testing with real people (observe what they type in to find certain information)
      7. Customer service emails, phone calls and salespeople’s experience (how do people describe things?)

    What you gather should be worked into your search system and tested. You may also want to work some of these terms into your FAQ topics or create custom content around them. It’s one thing to deliver your shipping information page for an “international shipping” query, it’s another thing if you actually don’t support international orders and the user has to read the whole policy three times before giving up in frustration. You could create a page that says “We’re sorry, ThisEcommerceStore currently does not support international orders.” Even though you might not care too much about losing a customer you can’t support anyway, the principle remains, you need to really think through your search functionality decisions, and determine what is best.

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